He threw the first pitch

I’ve written about the first baseball game I ever attended here. It was the summer of 1975, I was seven years old, and my dad drove me down to St. Louis to see a doubleheader between the Cardinals and the New York Mets. I remember a few things from that day, but the baseball end of it is a bit hazy. I didn’t know anything about the game at that point in my life, but I was eager to learn. Fortunately, there’s now online sources to assist me in reconstructing what I saw that day.

I remember that Tom Seaver, who was just about the best pitcher there was in 1975, was pitching for the Mets in Game 1 of the doubleheader. But what I couldn’t remember, because I didn’t know, was who pitched against him in that game. And the answer, according to baseball-almanac.com, is Lynn McGlothen, who later pitched for the Cubs but in 1975 was a Cardinals starter. He couldn’t know it then, but he was in the middle of the best three-year run of his career in St. Louis. In fact, he defeated the great Tom Seaver on that day. He must have been a pretty good pitcher in order to do that.

McGlothen came to the Cubs during the 1978 season, and he was a starter for the team in 1979 and 1980. He was traded to the White Sox in 1981, and his career came to an end with the Yankees in 1982. In his 11-year career, he threw 41 complete games, which is more than all but two active major-leaguers can say.

But the most shocking thing about Lynn McGlothen was that he died more than a quarter-century ago, and I never heard anything about it. Granted, I wasn’t paying much attention to anything in the summer of 1984, but when the trailer he was living in in his home state of Louisiana caught fire and took him along with it, there was no mention of it anywhere that I could tell. The Cubs themselves sure never mentioned it. He was only two years out of the game, and five years removed from this card, and only 34 years old. Life is indeed very short.

So if I was in the stands before the first pitch was thrown in St. Louis back in 1975–and I have to believe that I was–then the first pitch of a baseball game that I ever witnessed in my life was thrown by Lynn McGlothen. That’s pretty amazing, now that I think about it. Kudos to websites like Baseball-Almanac.com, which allow for memories to be reconstructed like this. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I ever do something like this.

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His place in history

Paul Reuschel

A week ago, when the baseball season hadn’t yet started, and the Cubs weren’t off to their “This will be a long year, won’t it?” start of 1-4 after five games, I scanned a card highlighting long-ago Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel. Today, in the interest of equal time–and to keep me from going off on this year’s team too much–I’m going to spend some time recounting the career of Rick’s brother, Paul Reuschel.

Paul Reuschel, like Bill Plummer, just turned 65 this year. He’s two years older than his brother Rick, but made his big league debut in the 1975 season, fully three years after Rick had made his. There’s always a sibling rivalry going on, especially when one brother is in the majors and the other (older) one isn’t, but they appear to have gotten along reasonably well, if this photo is any indication.

I came across this card when I was digging through a box of baseball cards the other day. The pose that Reuschel is in, as with Bruce Sutter’s card from that year, is something that was common for Topps cards in that era. Sutter was about to have the breakout season that launched a Hall of Fame career, while Paul Reuschel’s pitching career wouldn’t survive into the 1980s. Same team, same pose, different career arcs. Such is life.

But the thing I wanted to say about Paul Reuschel is that his place in Major League history is secure. In the long history of professional baseball, he can say something that no other pitcher can. And it stems from a relief appearance at the end of a game during his rookie season of 1975.

On September 16, 1975, history was made at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And not the type of history a team might want to make, in their own ballpark and in front of fewer than 5,000 fans in the stands, with a few thousand more watching on cable TV. Baseball’s Game of the Week was on back then, but beyond that ballgames generally weren’t shown on TV. It was a different time.

Rick Reuschel was the starter against the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, but he was pounded in the first inning. In fact, by the time three Pirates had been retired, Rick Reuchel was done for the day, having allowed 8 runs (all of them earned) on 6 hits and a walk. Reuschel was followed by a series of Cubs pitchers, who proved to be unable to stop the Pirate juggernaut. By the end of the seventh inning, the score stood at 22-0, which was to be the most lopsided shutout of the entire 20th century. And this was being done to the home team, no less.

The outcome of the game had long been decided, but there were still two innings left to be played. How many of the 4,900 fans who attended the game remained in the ballpark at this point is anyone’s guess, but a number somewhere in the three digits wouldn’t surprise me too much. Who would stay to watch such a beatdown? Not me.

Rookie pitcher Paul Reuschel was sent in to absorb his share of abuse from Pirate hitters in the eighth. He retired the first two hitters in order, when up came Rennie Stennett, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter. Stennett had already racked up six hits on the day, and he proceeded to put the exclamation point on his day by driving the ball into right field.

As Stennett was  pulling into third base, standing up, I turned on a Cubs game for the first time in my life. I had a broken leg at the time, and would have rather been outside running around with the other neighborhood kids, but my cast and crutches made that all but impossible. A graphic was put up on the screen –a rare thing in those days–informing the viewer that Rennie Stennett had gone 7-for-7 in a nine inning game, and was the first player in big league history to accomplish this feat. The seven-year old that I was found this factoid most intriguing.

Reuschel retired the next hitter, to end the inning. He also finished the ninth without giving up a run, and became the only Cubs pitcher that day who wasn’t scored upon. You could say he had a decent outing that day, certainly a much better one than his little brother had to start the game. But Reuschel also carved his name into the history books by becoming the first, and so far the only, pitcher to give up a seventh hit to a batter in one game.

Just as Rennie Stennett made history by getting that hit, so too did Paul Reuschel make history by surrendering it. This was an otherwise meaningless game at the end of the regular season, and it’s an admittedly obscure baseball record, so nobody’s going to remember the name Rennie Stennett, much less Paul Reuschel. But, at the same time, this at-bat and its historic result was enough to reel me in as a Cubs fan, and set me on a path that has stretched out for 37 years since then.

If Paul Reuschel had retired Sennett, and made that TV graphic unnecessary, perhaps I’m not so intrigued by a baseball game on TV that afternoon. Maybe then I stay true to my Cardinals upbringing, complete with the World Series titles and an overall level of success that I can’t relate to as a Cubs fan.  Who knows for certain? But I can say that Paul Reuschel and Rennie Stennett essentially set my baseball course in motion, all those many years ago.

The pivotal year

I was walking my dog this morning when I noticed a penny in the street. It was in the crease between the actual street and the asphalt lump that rises to form a speed bump. Speed bumps are prevalent in my neighborhood, and they’re irritating but, like squirrels, they continue to exist without regard to my opinions about them.

As I have done before, I looked at the date stamped on the penny to see if there wasn’t something to be said about that year. And the year I saw, 1975, would have to be considered a very significant–if not the most significant–year in my life, at least so far as baseball is concerned. At the start of that year, the six-year old me had no interest in the game, but by the end of that year, the seven-year old me had an attachment to it that won’t leave me until I take my final breath. That’s how pivotal the year was for me.

It began in the spring, when I convinced my parents to sign me up for a baseball team in the Khoury League. Most of the kids on the team were my classmates at school, and this was a chance to see them outside of school, as well. I learned about the rules of the game, and swung a bat for the first time in my life. It was a feeling of departure from toys and childish things. Grown-ups played baseball, and now I was doing it, too. That was very important to me.

I also began collecting baseball cards, as kids did back then. The first time that I ever walked into a store, all by myself, and bought a pack of Topps baseball cards was an empowering moment. I wouldn’t have let either of my seven-year olds do such a thing, but it was a different time back then. Nobody knew what a UPC code was, for instance. You could probably walk around the store with a cigarette, if you wanted to. And a little kid could take some pocket change up to the cashier and walk away with pictures and statistics for ballplayers he had never heard of before. What could be any better than that?

There wasn’t much in the way of baseball coverage on TV, which was my primary window to the wider world in those days. There was the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC, and I started watching that. My father realized that I was old enough to appreciate the game in person, so he bought tickets for a double-header in St. Louis against the Mets in July. I remember my dad and his brother, my Uncle Mike, using a pocket schedule and the Cardinals’ pitching rotation to determine who the pitchers were going to be that day. It was something worth looking forward to.

The first day I ever went inside a major league ballpark, it felt like a switch had been thrown. The crowd, the noises, the commotion, the vendors, the whole scene was exhilarating for me. The Cardinals won the first game, and lost the second one, but I left feeling that something had revealed itself to me. It’s not a regular feeling to have, especially when you’re that young. But I felt it on that day.

The next big step in my baseball progression was discovering the Cubs and WGN Channel 9. I have written about that game here, and the call of Jack Brickhouse and the visuals of Wrigley Field acted as a 1-2 puch for me. This team played the same game that the Cardinals did, but they were on TV every day and the Cardinals weren’t. The sale had been made, as far as my baseball loyalties ran.

The final touch on my conversion to baseball came in October. Watching Luis Tiant pitch, and seeing the Big Red Machine do its thing, and understanding that these games meant more than the regular season games did, all brought the game home to me. It wasn’t summertime anymore, but baseball games were still going on, anyway. The long rain delay between Game five and Game six made me want to see the game that much more when it did come back. And then there was Game six….

I’m certain that I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to watch Carlton Fisk’s home run off the left field foul pole. But I remember being told that if Boston won, there wouldn’t be any more baseball until spring. I didn’t want that to happen, and I was relieved when there would be one more game the next day. Game sevens ever since have been special for me, especially because they’re so rare.

The end of the 1975 baseball season left me excited for the 1976 season. There’s always going to be a next year, and this year’s games are just about to start. The wheel keeps on turning, as it has since I was seven years old. I’ll be the first to admit that baseball is not life, but it does help to shape its contours. And there’s nothing else quite like that for me.